New year’s revelations

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Image courtesy of Henry Hingst.

It struck me recently that, although I place great store in the quality of an insight, I really had no consistent way of measuring how good one of them was and no way to help other people recognise a potent insight if they stumbled across one. That has all changed.


For me 2009 is going to be the year of the insight. That’s for a number of reasons. Our agencies need them, our creative people need them and most importantly our clients need them more than ever. In these difficult times, exclusive access to a powerful new way to think about people, a brand or the wider world is going to be of immeasurable commercial advantage to the businesses we serve.
But how do you legislate for good insights? how do you describe what an insight is? How do you know whether what you have on your hands is an insight of a piece of lacklustre intellectual guano?
Until now I have simply waffled on about insights being fresh ways of thinking about brand, category or the wider world. Indeed I had a go at talking about them a bit here. But I have never really satisfactorily nailed the little fuckers, certainly not in a way that created an action standard for myself and others.
So I had another look at Simon Law’s excellent presentation on insight and the answer was sitting there rather splendidly waiting to be nicked.
He uses the word revelation, which in a way was a bit of a revelation. Because revelation is spot on is it not? An insight is a revelation. It has to be, thats what elevates it from being simply an observation.
So I had a go at working up a little definition of revelation. To qualify as a revelation an insight has to be an astonishing disclosure about real people, the brands they use or the world they live in.
So thats it, after 19 years in this business I finally understand what an insight is and have an action standard to judge them by. Just as creative briefs must be simple and interesting, the insights in them must be a revelation – to the writer, to the team, to the client and to the people the work is intended for.
No revelation or astonishing disclosure, no insight. Simple.
Let’s say that again, if you find anything masquerading as an insight on a strategy, in a document, in a research debrief, in a creative brief or in a conversation that does not appear to you to be a revelation get rid of it immediately. And pour scorn on the person or organisation touting it as such.
So where do these revelations come from. Well I’m offering you four potential sources – none of which go by the label of research or come from ‘the insight department’. Since the biggest criticism of research at the moment – particularly from our clients – is that it so rarely yields any insight.
Firstly, as I have always maintained, great insights come from within. From you, your behaviour, your anxieties, your perceptions and misperceptions. Your own experiences should always be your first port of call when thinking about insight. They may be useful, or they may prove useless but they should always be your starting point. And an ability to stay close to your instinct and experiences should be something you cultivate.
Secondly from real people not respondents. From spending time with people in their world understanding the things that are important to them. After a very long time using qualitative research I am really not sure that this can be done in group discussions and increasingly believe that it must be from real and empathetic immersion in other people’s lives. At Saatchi we call this xploring, but essentially this is simply a philosophy of engagement with people to find truth.
Thirdly from academics. Along time ago a particularly smart planner said to me, ‘why would I want to go and conduct six one and a half hour groups with the good people of Solihull and Sidcup when I can read the work of someone that has been studying this area for 20 years and written seven books on the subject. sounded reasonably convincing to me. So get into the cultural studies part of the bookshop and rack up some expenses.
And finally from what I have always called weird shit. That’s the places, conversations, websites and books that everybody else regards as rather peculiar but that often hold in them real gems about why people do what they do. I call this consumer fundamentalism because it is really about opening yourself up to the deeper and less palatable reasons for the way people behave.
Each of these places will help you discover real insight about real people and help you think more fundamentally about people and their behaviour. And I whole heartedly commend them to you.
So make 2009 the year that you commit to revelation as the key action standard by which you judge the quality of your insight. And think about different ways to depth charge your thinking with powerful new revelations.

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26 Replies to “New year’s revelations”

  1. Dead right on the sources, although I’d add that exposing oneself to different ones pays off when one’s mind is open to making some rather creative connections. It’s almost as if sources + conversation = revelation i.e. books, blogs, people, radio etc combined with the correct mindset and an environment where one can talk about them. It’s not rocket science.

  2. Very revealing.
    Too many “insight” departments are just re-badged “research” departments still serving up unexciting observations.
    I am also wondering if the (average?) planner’s drive to offer up insights/revelations/”fuck me” facts is something to do with showing off
    As a second child was I always trying to get attention from my parents with some amazing fact or new thing? Do first children offer up authoritative “observations” – the “how it is, junior”? Do 2nd children need to offer something new and (in particular) seek to win attention with some revelation?
    Planners as needy, attention seeking children anyone?
    In interviews I alway thought sibling rank was a good predictor of planning ablility (so sue me).

  3. I wonder if, for our purposes, the definition ought be linked to action? As in, an insight is a revelation that changes the way you think the problem at hand. After all you can have insights – and revelations – that lead precisely nowhere…

  4. I offer up a caution on this thread. I think branding and marketing people are often too focused on “new” and “radical” – just do a quick scour of the adjectives used above. I think insights can often be quite subtle or simple, but more importantly reveal a TRUTH about how people think / use / do / value – about context between people, things, desires, and activities. and i do agree observation to insight – to impact or action is absolutely the way it. i often think that the insight needs to track back directly to observations (direct from our own empathic research, to broader global trends that can be clearly and objectively seen to be real, and by ourselves and our clients saying, ‘gee, that’s right i do that but never really put it in context before) and the insight also needs to be able to suggest a path forward, a recommendation, a course of action.

  5. love it.
    the one thing that isn’t mentioned often, is that most insight partners (and i refer to research agencies) are awful.
    I was at Added Value, which I can honestly say does some strong work. In being exposed to other agencies work (and all loyalties aside), I’ve been shocked by how completely underwhelming research partners are. The weakest of findings & the total absence of insight.
    Many ad agencies are quick to demonise research. I’d like to slightly reframe the argument, and choose to demonise bad research. There are limitations to groups – no doubt. But good group work does exist, though EXTREMELY scarce.
    True enough – clients drive research agencies into unremarkable places. I ask the research agency community to lift their game for all out sakes.

  6. I aspire to both your turn of phrase and year-long commitment to erudition.
    I cannot agree enough with your fourth source (consumer fundamentalism) as a breeding ground for revelation. You’ve posted a number of times on fringe sources and fringe thinking, and this particular point hammers it home.
    The conundrum, of course, is this: the further afield one ventures, the more difficult to convince one’s followers to follow (and the more likely to viewed as having gone afield oneself).
    In a space focus-grouped right to the middle, perhaps far afield is the place to be.

  7. ‘Advertising agencies are quick to demonise research’. Planners used to be qual research’s best friend. BMP (DDB)pioneered and championed qual research, precisely because of its value in generating the consumer insights which come from the interaction between researchers and real people. Now we qual researchers are subject to the kind of sneering attacks above. Rather than sneer back, we try to reason gently and to point out that unless we give our clients real insight, which they value, (and the beauty of an insight is in the eye of the beholder) we’d soon go out of business. And we don’t just do focus groups as you all well know, we do a lot of in home or in situ in depth filmed one on ones etc. But we also know that these attacks on qual research are just a pose; ad agencies attack on the one hand and set up their own qualitative research on the other, even if they do call it xploring or whatever. Because it remains an unparalleled source of insight, and you know it.

  8. Really liked the message that strategic revelations are found in deeply personal observations about user behavior. Fundamentally, revelations derive from primary sources; derivatives of those sources (media, focus groups, surveys, etc.) simply condense the variety of experience and in that condensation lose the revelatory signal points found amidst the brand noise. I found in surveying companies for the Brand Bubble that those who opened their brands to the litany of ideas being shared within their brand space, were the ones that found the revelatory idea and consequently energized their business. The messiness of interacting with primary sources is a prominent truth that planners and management must accept if they are to get to these revelations. Thanks for your thoughtful ideas.

  9. You are kidding. An insight is a revelation! Well done you are about 15% there. How about something that unlocks brand opportunity, how about being directive, how about a fresh perspective, how about inspiring.
    This post highlights just how bad most ad agencies (and to a lesser extent research agencies) are at getting understanding insights and finding them.
    It is clear that you do not have any information on insights at hand.

  10. You are about 20% there. How about something in your definition that’s about unlocking brand opportunity, how about being directive, how about a fresh perspective, how about inspiring……
    This post highlights just how bad most ad agencies (and to a lesser extent research agencies) are at understanding insights and finding them.

  11. Ahh brilliant – media boys. Have a pop at everyone else and the come up with such rapier like thinking as ‘observation followed by fresh reframing’. Nice one Faris.
    In opposite land.

  12. C’mon Richard – don’t get shirty ;) you know I love and respect you.
    And – whatever deleterious effect my contribution to semantic fixity for the strategic currency we call insight may have had – I don’t think we are going to better or argue with Bullmore on this.
    But, if you really want to get some action going [rubs hands] – revelation is a tricky work to land on….as it embeds the concept of revealed truth….regardless of whether you take its religious aspect or not it insists on disclosure – as though the insight was already there to be teased out…
    But, as Bullmore points out, insight requires imagination. It is a creation.
    Media boys. hehehe. Really mate? Must we divide ourselves so. Anyway, I work for an advertising agency now ;-)

  13. Another thought-provoking post from *Adliterant*. We are accostomed to the qual research jibes, even if based on an outmoded vision of qual research as being about ‘respondents’ and ‘debriefs’. As Dominic says, we use only 100% real people, freshly recruited …
    But there is a more troubling thing. Planners are the only people who can have an idea? Planners can generate *revelations* via introspection …? Are you guys getting a God complex?

  14. By nailing insight = revelation, I think what you’re describing is what is called an Aha Erlebnis in German. Think ‘Eureka’.
    Three characteristics here:
    1. Revelations always (almost always?) come after a period of impasse, and never (seldom?) is this impasse solved by mere analysis. More often, revelations will come after having ‘put away’ a problem to some co-processor-like part of the brain.
    2. Revelations always come with a suddenness, without warning.
    3. When they come, revelations are always accompanied by a feeling of certainty.
    cf the very insightful article by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker, July 28, 2008: “The Eureka Hunt. Why do good ideas come to us when they do?”
    “At a certain point, you just have to admit that your brain knows much more than you do.
    “An insight is a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge.”

  15. The problem to me, is that most of the times we’re focused on what the brand has to say to people and not really how the brand fits and is relevant to the people’s daily life. If you shift that focus, you’ll find it much easier to dig or bump into “bingo”/”fuck me” insights :)

  16. As a planner, I’ve been through the exercise of doing presentations about insights, and I’m always using this piece, an extract of the definition of “insight” by the International Dictionnary of Psychanalysis. (the complete definition is here: http://www.enotes.com/psychoanalysis-encyclopedia/insight)
    “In psychoanalysis, insight is a process whereby one grasps a previously misunderstood aspect of one’s own mental dynamics. It refers to a specific moment, observable during the treatment, when the patient becomes aware of an inner conflict, an instinctual impulse, a defense, or the like, that was previously repressed or disavowed and that, when it emerges into consciousness, elicits surprise and a sense of discovery.
    Two forms of the experience have been described. The first involves a feeling of sudden discovery or illumination—a kind of “Eureka!” moment. The second is a slower, more gradual process where the subject and usually the analyst as well experience a sensation of the obvious: “Yes, that’s how it is. We knew this, of course, but now it’s perfectly clear.”
    The two forms of experience are exactly the revelation you’re talking about. And this definition’s been there all along ; )
    And I use this quote (couldn’t find who wrote it).
    “When brought to light, an insight reminds you of something you didn’t know you knew.”
    And I use a couple of ad campaigns as examples, among which Marmite’s “you either love it or hate it” print campaign, as well as one of my favorite’s TVC ever for Norsk Lotto, “Ballroom Blitz” (see

    a clever ad about what money can buy, freedom.

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